Keep Liberty Beautiful board member Willie Cato remembers when the beach on St. Catherine’s Island was a party spot for those lucky enough to have a boat or access to one.
Few worried about taking trash with them when they left the island.
"It used to be nothing to come out here 20 years ago and see beer bottles and old grills piled up on the beach," he said. "You rarely find anything like that out here now."
That was apparent Saturday, as some 60 volunteers combed the beach in Keep Liberty Beautiful’s ninth annual beach sweep. Though they bagged about 460 pounds of garbage and unearthed six tires to haul to the mainland for disposal, that’s a far cry from what volunteers found during KLB Director Sara Swida’s first beach sweep nine years ago.
"That first year we came out here we brought back 2,000 pounds of litter and debris," Swida said. "Now we average between 350 to 450 pounds, and really, I’m just so grateful people who come over here to enjoy this beach are helping keep it cleaner, safer and healthier, not only for wildlife and aquatic life, but for us as well."
The cleaner beach is a result of increased public awareness, Dave Sapp believes. He is one of several volunteer boat captains who ferry volunteers up Walberg Creek to St. Catherine’s each year.
The military retiree once headed Liberty County’s solid waste program, and got into KLB through his late wife, Pat, who became Keep Liberty Beautiful’s first director.
"I love taking people out and showing them the islands," Sapp said. "It’s beautiful, and we’re very fortunate. It’s a selfish fortunate, because we who have the boats have access to these islands."
Roughly 40 percent of Liberty County is water of some sort, including creeks, wetlands and marshes. Saturday’s beach sweep is part of a two-month effort by KLB and groups such as Rivers Alive and the Ocean Conservancy to clean up waterways and educate the public on their importance.
"We really try to protect not only small waterways like creeks and streams and ponds, but also our larger waterways, rivers and lakes and the ocean," Swida said.
Last year, 800 volunteers helped KLB during those two months. More than 4,000 give of their time and resources each year for events as varied as waterway cleanups, recycling fairs and road adoptions.
"This program," Swida said, "has always been meaningful to me. I really feel like it makes a great difference in the community. How it looks, how you take care of it. That says a whole lot about what kind of community you have."
Take back what you bring
Husband and wife Michael and Lisa Burdette of Richmond Hill participated in Saturday’s beach sweep. They said they’ve been picking up after others for more than four decades, but Saturday was their first organized beach sweep.
Both grew up in Liberty County.
"My first experience of a beach is right here, my daddy bringing me out to St. Catherine’s island," Lisa Burdette said. Her husband added, "Mine too."
"We just want to protect it, keep it safe," Lisa said. "So every time we come out here, we do a trash pickup."
The Burdettes said they often find old buoys, buckets and a lot of plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Saturday, they filled a trash bag with beer cans, a small propane bottle and other trash.
"One of the things that bothers me the most are the balloons," Lisa Burdette said. "People don’t realize when they’re releasing these balloons they’re endangering the environment."
Marine creatures can mistake balloons for jellyfish or other food. Those innocently-released balloons can strangle sea turtles, dolphins and birds.
"It’s very important to be cognizant of what you’re doing to the environment," Lisa said, as they walked near the high water mark where St. Catherine’s beach gives way to the twisted branches of live oaks and palmetto trees.
"It’s good that people come out here," Michael Burdette said, "God’s creation that he made for us to enjoy is beautiful. But take back what you bring with you when you go."
The group covered about four miles of beach before breaking for a lunch of grilled bratwurst and hot dogs. Sapp told of the time volunteers found what most thought was an unexploded Civil War cannonball.
"Everyone stayed away from it," Sapp said, until, after careful inspection by an expert at Fort Morris, the cannonball turned out to be the bottom of a Weber grill.
Swida said the beach sweep is probably the most logistically challenging cleanup her organization does, "getting all this stuff out here is probably the most time consuming thing we do," she said. "But it’s really worth it, when people come out here and see the island, especially the people who have never been here before. They see it and realize how important it is to preserve it."
That need to preserve for the future is why Cato is part of Keep Liberty Beautiful, he said.
"I think we need to protect the communities we live in and our natural resources, for us and for generations to come, because we’re not going to be here forever," Cato said.